Pennsylvania v. $34,440.00 US Cur.; Apl of Falette (majority)Annotate this Case
In a discretionary appeal, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court considered the burdens of proof applicable in civil in rem forfeitures of currency under Pennsylvania’s Controlled Substances Forfeiture Act, 42 Pa.C.S. sections (repealed), which, inter alia, provided that money is forfeitable to the Commonwealth upon proof of a “substantial nexus” to certain prohibited drug activities under The Controlled Substance, Drug, Device and Cosmetic Act, 35 P.S. sections 780-101 - 780-144. Particular to this case, the Court considered whether the Commonwealth could satisfy its evidentiary burden of proving a substantial nexus between the seized currency and prohibited drug activity by relying solely upon the Forfeiture Act’s presumption at 42 Pa.C.S. 6801(a)(6)(ii), which provided that money found in close proximity to controlled substances was rebuttably presumed to be the proceeds derived from the sale of a controlled substance, and, if so, the related assessment of how this presumption could be rebutted. The Commonwealth Court held proof of proximity under the Subsection 6801(a)(6)(ii) presumption was sufficient to establish a substantial nexus and that the innocent owner defense set forth at 42 Pa.C.S. 6802(j) provided the sole method by which claimants could rebut the presumption. Though the Supreme Court agreed that generally, the proof of proximity under the Subsection 6801(a)(6)(ii) rebuttable presumption may be sufficient to satisfy the Commonwealth’s overall evidentiary burden of proving a substantial nexus for the purpose of currency forfeitures. However, the Supreme Court determined the Commonwealth Court erred in concluding that the innocent owner defense was the sole basis for rebutting that presumption. Rather, the Court concluded the presumption could be rebutted by demonstrating that the seized currency was not the proceeds of drug sales, independent of a claimant’s ability to satisfy the innocent owner defense. If the Subsection 6801(a)(6)(ii) presumption has been rebutted sufficiently, the burden of proof remains with the Commonwealth such that it must put on further evidence of a nexus to drug activity beyond the mere propinquity between the money and controlled substances. Because the Commonwealth Court erred as a matter of law in holding otherwise, its order was vacated, as was the trial court’s order, and the matter was remanded to the trial court for further proceedings.